I read Viet Thanh Nguyen’s 2016 Pulitzer-prize winning novel The Sympathizer the same week PBS’ The Vietnam War aired. My husband, a military man, was fascinated by the documentary but I found myself flinching and turning away from the television night after night, grateful not to have been of age during that conflict to have it register so damningly on my mind.
Instead of watching the images on television, I turned to the pages of my book and found the war portrayed just as compellingly, albeit from the other side.
Nguyen’s Sympathizer is a narrator who sees both sides of nearly everything. He is a native Vietnamese who speaks flawless, unaccented English. His father, a French priest, who denies him; his mother, an impoverished Vietnamese woman who loves him. The Sympathizer is a solder, an aide, a secret Communist in South Vietnam, a spy.
I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds, . . . able to see any issue from both sides. Sometimes I flatter myself that this is a talent,” he continues, but “I wonder if what I have should even be called talent. After all, a talent is something you use, not something that uses you. The talent you cannot not use, the talent that possesses you — that is a hazard.
This book is deep, important, dense with information, plot lines, characters. Honestly, as someone who was not cognizant of the politics at the time of the war, it was often confusing. Perhaps that is intentional: Nguyen’s narrator while externally representing the South Vietnamese position is internally aligned with the North Vietnamese Viet Cong. And yet, despite his internal beliefs and external work, the reader is not always sure where the narrator’s true sympathies lie. He supports communism, hates America, yet moves to live in America and profits from it.
“My chances of returning to America were small, and I thought with regret about all the things I would miss about America: the TV dinner; air-conditioning; a well-regulated traffic system that people actually followed; a relatively low rate of death by gunfire, at least compared with our homeland; the modernist novel; freedom of speech, which, if not as absolute as Americans liked to believe, was still greater in degree than in our homeland; sexual liberation; and, perhaps most of all, that omnipresent American narcotic, optimism, the unending flow of which poured through the American mind continuously, whitewashing the graffiti of despair, rage, hatred, and nihilism scrawled there nightly by the black hoodlums of the unconscious.”
The Sympathizer begins during the evacuation of Vietnam, continues into the immigrant experience in America then takes a surreal turn onto a movie set, very closely resembling Apocalypse Now. Although it seemed a strange turn for this “serious” novel, the movie set was my favorite part of the read. The American directors, producers, writers, and actors — for all their good intentions or not — can’t help but step in it nearly every time they open their mouth.
“His arrogance marked something new in the world, for this was the first war where the losers would write history instead of the victors, courtesy of the most efficient propaganda machine ever created (with all due respect to Joseph Goebbels and the Nazis, who never achieved global domination). Hollywood’s high priests understood innately the observation of Milton’s Satan, that it was better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven, better to be a villain, loser, or antihero than virtuous extra, so long as one commanded the bright lights of center stage. In this forthcoming Hollywood trompe l’oeil, all the Vietnamese of any side would come out poorly, herded into the roles of the poor, the innocent, the evil, or the corrupt. Our fate was not to be merely mute; we were to be struck dumb.”
This is an important book and one that I raced through in order to finish it in time for my book club. It turned out only two of us got through the whole things, it is, as I said, dense. But each page contains a nugget of joy, humor, wisdom. It’s a book I’d like to return to and delve deeper into and take more time to read.
There was a great deal of beer drinking and an ode to fish sauce. My best idea would be to buy some good quality spring rolls, serve them with rice and fish sauce and also offer American burgers. The duality of the novel calls for the same in the menu.
Spotify offers a playlist of the songs that appear in The Sympathizer in the order in which they appear! How about that. https://open.spotify.com/user/128916364/playlist/7ogZqRZVXiMvlGyceT3dvv
I’m not even going to try. Way too many characters and my capacity for stepping in it is greater than the great DIRECTOR and AUTEUR imagined by Nguyen.